Eclectic Reader: Read like a writer

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Readers will be drawn quickly into this story of a man caught up in the tangle of personal and societal challenges and his struggle to survive on his terms. Writers will want to read with an eye as to how J.M. Coetzee writes an emotionally moving story without a trace of sentimentality. There is nothing superfluous in Coetzee’s narrative; it is the stark story of one man’s journey (although perhaps an allegory too).

J.M. Coetzee creates an entire life, beginning with Michael’s birth, keeping a quick pace, yet giving readers all the information they need to develop their own ideas about Michael K and his life. We first meet the infant, born with a hair lip, whose mother “shivered to think what had been growing in her all these months.” Then, “Because of his disfigurement and because his mind was not quick, Michael was taken out of school after a short trial” and sent to a state institution until he was fifteen. “Because of his face K did not have women friends. He was easiest when he was by himself.” We learn all of this, starkly, and without elaboration, in three pages. When the narrative opens, Michael is working as a gardener. His dying mother wants to go home to a childhood farm on the veld. Michael, dutiful son, attempts to obtain travel documents, which never arrive. He quits his gardening job at Wynberg Park, City of Cape Town, and they leave without the required papers. On foot, pushing his mother in a make-shift cart, the journey begins.

In Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee has taken one damaged man and written a lucid, spare story of his determination to live his life his way. True to the best character driven stories, Michael changes. Mid-way through the story, Michael realizes it.

When he thought of Wynberg he thought of an earth more vegetal than mineral, composed of last year’s rotted leaves and the year before’s and so on back till the beginning of time, an earth so soft that one could dig and never come to the end of the softness; one could dig to the centre of the earth from Wynberg Park, and all the way to the centre it would be cool and dark and damp and soft. I have lost my love for that kind of earth, he thought, I no longer care to feel that kind of earth between my fingers. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red; not the wet but the dry; not the dark but the light; not the soft but the hard. I am becoming a different kind of man….

Nevertheless, Michael’s limitations impede him: “Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words…. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story; always wrong.” Like the best protagonists, Michael is aware and flawed too. But eventually, he does understand something essential in his own immutable way:

When my mother was dying in hospital, he thought, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked to but someone who stood behind me: her mother or the ghost of her mother. To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.

Michael K is a most memorable character. J.M. Coetzee has won two Booker Prizes (1983 and 1999) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), among other honours and awards. If you “Read Like a Writer,” you can read no-one better than Coetzee, and if you creating a character-driven story, take note of Michael’s path.

52 Life & Times of Michael K

Available through your local bookstore or online: Life & Times of Michael K

If you like this story, you may also enjoy reading my review of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me

 

Journeys: the Art of Emebet Belete

This article about artist Emebet Belete was first published in the “Intelligencer,” Belleville Ontario’s daily newspaper (2018-10-17).

By Kathryn MacDonald

“Creating art is constant reflection: I love finding the perfect colour to express a mood, or to balance a painting so that I can look at it again and again and lose myself in the scene.”

Emebet Belete in studio (1 of 1)
Emebet Belete in her studio.

Emebet Belete is a world traveller, a woman who was born in Ethiopia where her career as an artist began and who moved from East Africa through South Africa and Zimbabwe, Eretria and Egypt, Europe and finally to Canada in 1997 where she earned Fine Art and Education degrees from Queen’s University. In 2008, she taught art in Tianjin, China, returning to Canada to settle in Belleville in 2013.

“In school I learned about Ethiopian art. I was fortunate to have a good art teacher. My parents were very supportive and I had a studio in our family’s yard.” Unfortunately, that studio burned down, but it was replaced, and Emebet continued to create art out of the materials she could gather together. These early roots have since branched into collages in which she explores her Canadian context.

Birch 2
Birch (collage)

Emebet Belete’s philosophy lives in her art. Her intention to seek something mysterious and lasting through colour, mood, and balance draws viewers deep within the work. In “Birch,” our eyes are pulled from the foreground birch, past the evergreen, deep into the depths of the Canadian landscape. This is also true of “By the Door,” a painting in which she captures a doorway into Debre Berhan Selassie, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches.

Emebet Belete By the Door (1 of 1)
By the Door (acrylic)

As with the Canadian scene, we find a story unfolding. Here we see the hot colours of Africa and our eyes are drawn to the partially open doorway to wonder what lies beyond. The white-robed figure looks forward, while we see only his back. We enter with him. We can read the painting in different ways. Perhaps we see the fading frescoes or the ceiling of winged cherubs within the mid-15th century church. Or perhaps, instead of a sanctuary to contemplate, our mind focuses on the dark beyond the open door, on the unknown future. Art expresses a vision of the artist, but it also welcomes viewers with ambiguity, sparking curiosity and enlarging knowing.

DSC_0033
In Ethiopia’s Colours

“Art is a journey for me. I can see paintings…watercolours I’ve done. They relate to my life, my experience, my background. I like to put things together, to go deeper, to learn who I am.”

I glanced at the table between us. It is covered with work-in-progress and bits of birch bark and paper. “So your life is a collage, like your art?”

“Yes, it is.”

 

Emebet Belete is preparing for a show at the Modern Fuel Gallery, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, January 2019. It will explore “white space and mood. I’ll use traditional fabric from Ethiopia” combined with music—Seongah and Jimmy by Neil Diamond—“that I listened to again and again and again.”

For more about Emebet’s art, please see her website: Emebet Belete.

Intelligencer - Emebet Belete

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

There is value in “truly describing the world.” In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuśińki shows us how to capture culture, time (present and past), and place. And he shows us – through example – how to write a fascinating, informative, layered story. History and philosophy buffs will appreciate his nuanced writing. Writers who read carefully, as Kapuśińki reads Herodotus, will gain the insights (and how-to) of a master reporter and storyteller.

Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, Kapuściński had a dream. He wanted to cross a border, not to leave Poland permanently, but just to feel what it was like to cross a border. He had Czechoslovakia in mind. By 1955, Kapuściński had finished his studies and was working at a newspaper. One day, his editor-in-chief asked him what he’d like to do. He told her,

… “I would very much like to go abroad.” …It made no difference which [border], because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act. Crossing the border [Emphasis Kapuściński’s].

A year later the editor summoned him. “‘You know,’ she said, as I stood before her desk, ‘we are sending you. You’ll go to India.’” As a parting gift, she gave him a copy of the newly translated The Histories.

India was an unknown world, a mystery. “I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of the hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter.” Yet, his open-eyed curiosity during his immersion in India is a joy to read (as are his stories of China, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere). Kapuściński might be the best travel writing I have ever read. His stories lack pomp and arrogance; they are immediate, carrying readers directly into experience. And all the while, he probes Herodotus for advice. How does Herodotus do it: go where Greeks had not gone, write with knowledge and insight about what was then unknown?

Stories in Herodotus’ time were oral; they had to hold people’s attention or they would drift away (not so different from today, is it?). He begins one session with the kidnapping of a Greek princess, Io, by the Persians. Kapuściński asks, why: “Because he respects the laws of the narrative marketplace: to sell well, a story must be interesting, must contain of bit of spice, something sensational, something to send a shiver up one’s spine.” In time, as Kapuścińki read The Histories, he abandoned his focus on the people and their wars and,

…concentrated instead on [Herodotus’] technique. How did he work, i.e., what interested him, how did he approach his sources, what did he ask them, what did they say in reply? I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher. I was intrigued by his encounters, precisely because so much of what we write about derives from our relation to other people—I-he, I-they. That relation’s quality and temperature, as it were, have their direct bearing on the final text. We depend on others; reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.

Later, in Ethiopia, Kapuściński notes how he lacks the resources of Western correspondents. He writes, “So I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape, and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain, because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.” He goes “into the field.” Like Herodotus, Kapuściński is a traveller.

Of course, the writer is a filter and present in the writing, but Kapuściński praises Herodotus for the way he relates information by giving the voice to his informants. Quoting from the beginning of The Histories, Kapuściński notes:

According to learned Persians…Or The Phoenicians say that…, and adding: So this is what the Persians and Phoenicians say. I am not going to come down in favour of this or that account of events, but I will talk about the man who, to my certain knowledge, first undertook criminal acts of aggression against the Greeks. I will show who it was who did this, and then proceed with the rest of the account. I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place.

Travels with Herodotus is two stories in one. Ryszard Kapuściński weaves tales of his early forays into travel journalism (beginning mid-1950s) with his reading of The Histories by Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC), that had been recently translated into his native Polish.

Kapuściński is a master storyteller who weaves magic realism, historical allegory, and literary techniques into his writing. He also introduces readers into an award-winning style of journalism. (Kapuściński was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature and won many other awards.) Travels with Herodotus 2004) provides readers with insights into writing acquired over a lifetime; it is his final book.

51 Travels with Herodotus

Available through your local bookstore or online: Travels with Herodotus

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath

Readers will be drawn into this novel through the characters and the pace of the writing. Writers will want to discover how McGrath creates the illusion that is the surface story and how he reveals the undercurrent, the shadowed story running beneath the surface, the foreshadowing that is easy to miss.

Do you ever pick up a book just because of its cover? This is how I came to read Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Art is one of my passions and the white cover is brushed with colour: orange, yellow, mustard, a blotch of red, another of green, a trail of purple. As it turns out, the story wasn’t what I expected, but I quickly became engrossed and resented sleep interfering with reading time.

The protagonist, Jack Rathbone, is a charming lad, narcissist, and more. His sister, Gin, narrates the novel; she adores him, gives up her painting dreams, and supports him. Vera Savage is the older woman and accomplished artist whom the still-teenage Jack enchants, marries, and runs away with (from London to New York’s art scene, and then to isolated and tropical Port Mungo). McGrath vividly draws each character and slowly reveals the tangled web created through Jack’s ambition, Gin’s illusions, and Vera’s weaknesses. Early in the novel, there’s a hint of Jack’s narcissism and Gin’s lack of insight:

He told me he would never have worked with such, oh—grandiosity—had he not lived in Port Mungo. He found there a reflection of himself, he said, and the meaning of his life as an artist was the effort to translate that identification directly onto canvas. I thought of his repeated motifs, his rain forests and rivers, his serpents and birds, and in particular his gleaming mythic bodies staring into pools—and much as I came to admire the work I never properly understood how he saw himself in those paintings.

Jack and Vera’s fraught relationship does produce (besides art) two daughters. The elder, born in Port Mungo grows wild, a shocking child in Gin’s mind. She invites Jack and Peg to visit her in New York where she has moved. The first visit goes well, but the later second reveals tension between father and adolescent.

Port Mungo is not a story for everyone. It begins with innocence and ambition, but the lives of the characters veer into murky waters. I found it distressing and upon completion decided not to write a review. Then I changed my mind because McGrath has written a compelling story that drew me in and kept me reading. And the fact that a story stays alive after the reading of it…well, isn’t that the kind of story we would each like to write.

For another story of a sister’s love and compassion for her brother, read The Gathering by Anne Enright: The Gathering. And for one about obsession, see Obsession by A. S. Byatt: Obsession.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Port Mungo

The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America 1925-1995 (poems selected by Ludwig Zeller; translation and introduction by Beatriz Zeller)

Reading outside our comfort zone stimulates and urges us to experiment with our own writing. The Invisible Presence reawakens the link between dreams and life, between the unconscious and awareness, between magic and reality. These poems (and the introduction to them) speak to nature and love, to politics and change. They push tradition and bridge formal Spanish forms and create space for surreal movements of the 20th century. Read as a writer and push your writing into new spaces.

I first read the sixteen poets — Rosamel del Valle, Enrique Molina, Olga Orozco, César Moro, Enriue Gómez-Correa, Braulio Arenas, Jorge Cáceres, Ludwig Zeller, José María Arguedas, Pablo de Rokha, César Dávila Andrade, Gonzalo Rojas, Aldo Pellegrini, Alvaro Mutis, Eduardo Anguita, and Humberto Díaz-Casanueva — in The Invisible Presence while vacationing last winter in Baracoa, Cuba. It seemed fitting to consider the rhythms, subjects, and shifting poetic traditions while on a Latin American island. Since then, I have read the collection many times, each reading taking me into another sensibility and place.

Beatriz Zeller’s introduction provides insight into Latin American poetry during this critical transitional period. My only wish is that I could have read the poems in Spanish, but, alas, my skill is barely sufficient for the street (and this book does not provide the original poems). Zeller writes that the poets in The Invisible Presence were influenced by “the ideas and forms of the Parnassian poets of France,” freeing them from the “constraints” of traditional Spanish forms. A door opened, allowing the “cadences of indigenous folklore” and the “marvelous” into new work of the twentieth century. Through movements like Mandrágora of Chile, Surrealism grew. These poems lead us through the door, away from traditional forms into magic, landscape, erotica, and voices that connote emotion and conversely to reality where a place of transformation becomes possible.

Of Rosamel del Valle’s poems, Beatriz Zeller writes, “The impact of reading and translating his poetry is comparable to the effect of barely perceptible breeze shaking a tree down to its roots. The irrational, the marvelous…the sumptuous imagery [results in] the invisible worlds…made palpable with a naturalness that makes it irresistible.” Her introduction includes insightful profiles of each of the sixteen poets, a useful guide into reading these unfamiliar authors.

My favourites include Enrique Molina’s “En Route,” 18-stanzas, four-lines each, that reads like a graphic dream (Argentina 1962). The passion in “High Tide” rides through; its form leans toward prose poem, but still there are line breaks:


there is no sun no sea the mad pigsty of the ports
    is not there wisdom of the night whose song I hear through
   the mouths of waters and fields with the violence of this planet
   which belongs to us but escapes us

In this poem, like many others in the collection, we experience chaotic nature as well as erotic passion.

César Moro’s “The Illustrated World moves me with every reading (Peru 1938-9). Unlike the separation of a man and woman that is Molina’s subject, Moro celebrates love:


To better moisten the feathers of birds
This rain falls from great heights
And locks me alone within you
Inside you and away from you
Like a road fading into another continent

Pablo de Rokha’s operatic prose poem “Diamond Toy” enchants and intrigues (Chile 1929) in a Lolita-like breathless onrush:


     she is like the immense fog which causes the sunset’s seeds to grow she sobs and she resembles a sea chick on her bent knees and her compact in a to-and-fro of the world her chest with torn roses

These poets deepened my appreciation of what we commonly call magic realism, and they have led me to renew an interest in Latin American writers. This summer, I also visited an exhibit of the poetry of Octavio Paz (Mexico) paired with the art of Robert Motherwell at the Art Gallery of Northumberland, an extraordinary (dare I say magical) journey through 34 pages of soul-moving poetry and lithographs. In September, I read Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth (Columbia), the story of Símon Bolívar’s last seven months’ voyage down the Magdalena River. (Bolívar was the general who freed Latin America from political Spain and who dreamed of a united continent.) García Márquez takes the well-known legend to mythic levels as his Bolívar drifts, dreams, and reimagines his life from the stupor of illness and approaching death. Now I am on the search for a copy of Dust Disappears by Carilda Oliver Labra (Cuba).

49 The Invisible Presence

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America 1925-1995

 

 

Book Review: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Readers will simply fall into this story—its events; its place. The writers among us might read beneath the beautiful words to think about how Anne Enright untangles memory and truth.

I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is a provocative family saga that delves into questions of secrets, memory and truth. At its heart is the story of a sister and her brother, their intense attachment within the milieu of a big Irish, multi-generational family.

I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It is also the story of marriage and children—the people we choose to live our lives with and the ones we don’t—the choices we make and decisions (or circumstances) made for us.

This sounds like a tangled, complicated story, but Enright’s writing is smooth and lyrical. The novel moves forward, while conversely it slips back into the lingering puzzles of childhood—with extraordinary and enviable storytelling skill.

The Gathering is an Irish story as only Irish writers write (think Joyce, the poetry of Seamus Heaney). It is grounded in Ireland. About three-quarters of the way along, Enright says,

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family—a whole fucking country—drowning in shame.

But if you’re not a political or history buff, don’t let that stop you from reading this unflinching look at life, life’s struggle for love. I am not alone in finding The Gathering a story to read; Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Reading as a Writer, pay particular attention to the pace of the story, how the author keeps you turning pages. Think, also, about the opening sentence:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

As you read, be aware how Enright stays constant to this thread, weaving the elusive “thing” and its consequences through to the last sentence.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Gathering

Book Review: Childhood by André Alexis

Childhood is one of the best stories written with the theme of time/memory and relationships. It is an intimate story of a man’s search for insight, if not understanding and meaning. This is a story that haunts on my levels.

Published twenty years ago (1998), Childhood by André Alexis, continues to loom large in my imagination. Childhood is told through the eyes of Thomas MacMillan. When the story begins, Thomas is a middle-aged man contemplating loss. He notes that it has been “six months since my mother died; a shade less since Henry passed.” Thomas, the narrator, has been brooding and decides:

Perhaps writing is the discipline I need.

So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning.

The “you” in the story is Marya, the woman he loves, a woman we never meet. He writes about memories as mysterious as childhood itself, their clarity elusive.

We meet the child Thomas in Pretoria living with his grandmother, and we come to understand a bit about his loneliness and the cerebral world in which he lives, notwithstanding his deliciously whimsical interpretations of the external world.

After his “cantankerous” grandmother, Mrs. Edna MacMillan—retired school teacher and leader of the ill-fated “The Dickens Society of Lambton County”—dies, Thomas meets his mother for the first time. He’s been living with a neighbour for two weeks. He’s ten years old.

She knocked at the door. I answered.
– Yes?

In a soft voice, the first word I heard her speak, she said
– Thomas?
and leaned forward to hold me. Though it was unpleasant, I allowed myself to be enveloped.

–We have to go, she said.

Pretoria is left behind and a car trip to Montreal begins. This is when he tells us that his “small world splintered.” It is an unusual and disorienting journey that ends, not in Montreal, but Ottawa, at 77 Cooper, a rambling three-story house that includes a library, a laboratory, and Henry Wing. On this convergence of mother, Henry, and love, Thomas strives to understand life and himself. About understanding his mother, Katarina (Kata) MacMillan, he concludes:

So, of the woman who whelped me, I now a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don’t know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned.…

Mind you, I can barely scratch the surface of “Who am I?” either.

The structure of Childhood is circular. At the conclusion, the adult narrator Thomas writes from a desk at 77 Cooper:

…I’ve come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through the ground. (I mean, Time is the ground, but my analogy is weak.)

Soon, there’s a contradiction, as happens in life:

Time, which isn’t like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I’ve led.

I will have thousands of childhoods before time is done.

He says that he will “begin another retrospective when I must.”

Childhood takes us on a poignant journey through memory, yielding shifts, distortions, and truths. A thesis could be written about what is largely unsaid—the impact of the immigrant experience, the mystery of loss, the lack of physical affection, abandonment and reclamation—the things written between the lines.

For the writers among us, Childhood, is the best example I can think of for a circular story structure. This book is not memoir, although André Alexis grew up on Pretoria and lives in Ottawa, which gives depth to the specific, nuanced details in the fictional novel. The third thing to look for as you read is how the author moves expertly between adult and child so that in the end we see the child still residing in the man.

47 Childhood

Available through your local bookstore or online: Childhood